The Bitter Angels of our Nature

I hate bullies. Always have. My problems with them began in nursery school when a group of older kids smashed me around enough to open a cut the length of my bicep (you can still see the scar). A few years later a gang of teenagers happened upon me playing alone at the park and battered me to a pulp. Those early lessons motivated me to conduct a study of the species. I learned that bullies are easy to spot. When you’re in a  group, they’re always the first to point out when someone else trips over their feet or their words or expresses an unpopular opinion and they do so loudly and clearly, soliciting agreement. It’s their social go-to: bullies are quick to create and claim space by excluding and ridiculing others.

Examining Donald Trump’s behavior during the primary debates and comparing them to his first days as President-elect yields interesting parallels. In the debates, he distinguished himself among a large field of competitors by ridiculing and hurling insults at his opponents. The strategy must have worked, because he successfully adapted it to an election campaign unparalleled in modern memory for its invocation of nativist and xenophobic themes. And in the four days since he has become president, Trump has shown every indication of bringing this style of management into the Oval Office. He has stated his intention to immediately deport 3 million people and made two key administration appointments, Mike Pence and Stephen Bannon, both notable for their anti-gay and anti-minority views. This is the politics of humiliation writ large: Trump has created and claimed space by excluding and ridiculing the concerns of others, specifically those of women, GLBT folk, ethnic and religious minorities.

Meanwhile, incidents of racial and sexual harassment have proliferated nation-wide, documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and chronicled in such news sources as The Guardian and the Globe and Mail. Similar reports have emerged on social media. Perhaps most troubling has been the outcry (mostly ignored by the mainstream) from teachers witnessing a terrible upswing in racial bullying among students. As a former teacher I’m convinced these kids are probably mimicking the behavior of their parents, who are themselves mimicking the Bully-in-Chief.  The Left has responded mostly with horror and hand-wringing: protest marches, indignant social media posts and the well-intended but vaguely ridiculous Safety Pin Campaign, which has left most targeted minorities shaking their heads in frustrated incredulity.

I learned, as a kid who spent a tortured adolescence fending off attacks right and left, that bullies don’t listen to reason. They are immune from persuasion by argument or emotional appeal. That’s because they don’t care: about you or morality or the opinion of people other than those they hold in thrall. All they care about is hurting you, over and over again, until you are reduced to nothing, whereupon they wander off in search of their next victim.

Anybody seeking to counter this new trend of social authoritarianism (a bully’s favorite form of government) must be prepared to get their hands dirty. Useful guides are popping up on the internet on how to confront and stop racist attacks. But it’s going to take more than good intentions – both in America and elsewhere – to halt this wave of xenophobia breaking out across the western democracies.

Opposing bullies comes at a risk. Specifically, you might get your ass kicked (or worse). But here’s a secret: refusing to give up, refusing to back down and refusing to accept the abuse is the only sure cure to bullying. Wearing safety pins is nice and all (and probably makes you feel better about yourself) but it won’t be enough to counter the vicious, primitive energy of the herd that has been unleashed. It took me nearly putting a kid in the hospital for my bullies to stop. I’ll never forget being dragged into the Dean of Student’s office, bloody and missing chunks of hair, to answer for my actions. I just stood there, bruised and grinning, not caring that I faced detention. I served it happily, reflecting on my new lesson. To survive, I would have to be that one kid who rises again and again, no matter how many times I got struck down.

Nothing terrifies a bully more.

f19562_13315692941

Advertisements

Last Call at la Belle Aurore

It’s easy to imagine the panic that gripped Paris as the Nazis approached during the summer of 1940. In a perverse gesture of cultural sensitivity, the German high command signalled its reluctance to destroy the grand architecture and priceless artworks of the City of Light and so reached an agreement with defenders: French troops would withdraw and allow Paris to be taken without a shot fired. Unfortunately, the German sense of aesthetic decorum didn’t extend to the 72,000 French Jews they later deported and slaughtered in death camps between then and 1944.  I was always puzzled by the logic that prioritized saving buildings and pretty paintings above the lives of actual human beings.

 

Until today.

 

Watching the fallout from Donald Trump’s election reverberate across the media, within my social circle and even here in my small town on Vancouver Island, I am beginning to understand the mentality of those German officers a little better. I imagine them gathering in a railway car to study their maps, drink sherry and congratulate each other on their enlightened humanity. Here they were on the brink of conquering a nation, yet determined to spare the enemy destruction of their capital. No stronger argument for German superiority existed … so long as each kept his gaze averted.

 

In the twenty-four hours since Donald Trump’s victory I have witnessed the averted gaze on many occasions, chiefly in the form of repeated denials that a Trump presidency will negatively affect specific groups within the United States. There have been demonstrations in a number of major cities, often met with counter-demonstrations, one of which led to a friend’s son being assaulted and detained by the US Secret Service. Another friend in California was planning to attend a gathering that was canceled due to threats of violence against participants. Meanwhile, a wave of Brexit-like hate-crimes against Muslims, GLBT folks, Hispanics and Latinos is being reported in both mainstream and social media. The discrediting of “political correctness,” it seems, is being taken as a go-ahead to blow the lid on of some spring-loaded storehouse of resentment. The gloves are off and the imperative “punish the Other” rises to a fever pitch.

 

And yet some continue to insist this is all just so much exaggeration and melodrama. Calls for calm and acceptance abound, as do attempts to normalize the election of a candidate who ran on a platform of naked xenophobia and nativism – the same candidate who has promised to reverse civil rights legislation, bar Muslims from entering the country, overturn Roe v. Wade and who now calls for nationwide concealed carry legislation. At best, this points to a future that is somewhat less than rosy for anyone who isn’t visibly straight, white and male. At worst, we’re headed for the imposition of a kind of weaponized fundamentalist dystopia. But hey it’s all just politics as usual, right?

 

The averted gaze, in a nutshell.

 

It will be easy for “good,” straight, white, Christian people to get along in this brave new world. Trump is taking the messy bazaar of American multiculturalism and stuffing it back into the handy, Ward’n June Cleaver duality of an earlier age: Christian and not, white and black, us and them. You’re either on his side of the fence, or you’re shit out of luck. All Trump’s followers have to do is refuse to acknowledge the danger he poses to their fellow countrymen and -women, ignore the fears and grievances of other races, other religions, other sexualities and all of society’s problems (those that bother WASPS, anyway) will take care of themselves. All they have to do is look away.

 

Which brings us to the last call at la Belle Aurore: that great scene in CASABLANCA wherein Rick, Sam and Ilsa meet at the bar to drink up the last of the champagne before the Germans arrive. At one point, they step outdoors to listen to instructions from a Gestapo envoy on how to behave when the Germans march into Paris. The Wehrmacht’s arrival is not shown in the movie, but I’ve met people who were actually there. They tell me that most Parisians stood in shocked silence. Some wept. And a few applauded because the Germans were coming to reimpose the duality of an earlier age, one where all you had to do was look away and society’s problems sorted themselves out.

 

That is where we are right now, folks. Last call at la Belle Aurore. And the Nazis are coming.

 

Will you look away?

 

Will you?

 

casablanca-scene1